USC Dornsife College Of Letters Arts and Sciences

University of Southern California

Studying Faith

What data do you collect in participant observation?

Whenever you make an observation, conduct an interview or talk informally with someone about your project, you should consider this as a piece of data. It can both lead you back to your questions and serve as the basis for your eventual research report. If you are conscientious about your work, you will have more information than you are able to remember, and you should begin preparing for the task of organizing and analyzing the data. Therefore, you need to develop a system for keeping up with all this information as you go along.

You will probably have various types of notes as you proceed with your fieldwork. Some thoughts will be jotted down on napkins and bulletins during services or meetings. You may make notes on your smartphone or tablets, using note-taking apps. Other times you might take more extensive notes after meetings or while reflecting on your experience.

When doing fieldwork, you should attempt to take regular and systematic notes about your observations and experiences through fieldwork. Through full participation and observation in the activities of the field site, you should be able to take “detailed, context-sensitive and locally informed field notes” (Emerson, Fretz and Shaw 2011).

In any event, get into the habit of writing down some form of notes about all of your research-related experiences. See this student-made video for some helpful tips on taking field notes:

Information to record in field notes:

  • Note the day, time of day, hours, the season.
  • Remember the events, rituals, liturgies, meditations, etc. that happened in chronological sequence.
  • Pay attention to who is present and who is not present, in terms of gender, age, ethnic, race and class composition of the religious community; note any visible identity markers, such as dress, style, race, language.
  • Observe how the room or space looks or feels (the general ambience).
  • Take notes about events like rituals and traditions that recur often and whether the tone of the event is serious, lighthearted, mellow, etc.
  • Identify what is regular and typical, as well as what is unusual and surprising.
  • Remember who said what and to whom.
  • Note what sources (either written or spoken) are used to tell people what is true.
  • Ask yourself how people in the group engage with one another, and how they engage with the outside world.
  • Pay attention to what structures of authority and leadership exist.
  • Note what people said in the setting, both as part of the ritual or with each other.

Interpret what you see

Beyond descriptive notes, you should try to actively interpret and make sense of what is going on whenever possible. Be perceptive about what is important to those involved in the group. You can write notes that capture or preserve this “in-group” meaning and significance. For instance, you can ask yourself:

  • How is the sacred experienced by members of the community?
  • What do group members believe is the central object of religious faith?

Record your own reactions and feelings

In these notes you should pay attention not only to what is happening around you but also to your own reactions. For example, are you feeling uncomfortable, embarrassed, bored, uneasy, moved, aroused? Writing a summary paragraph of the events, and your thoughts about the events, can be a useful tool when going back through your notes and looking for patterns.

Nalika Gajaweera was a senior research analyst with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture through 2023.

Andrew Johnson is a contributing fellow with the USC Center for Religion and Civic Culture.